You can't always judge a movie by its plot, and a good thing too. Otherwise, Marion Bridge would be a crashing bore. That it's not, that it's always engaging and often compelling, can be traced to a pretty good writer in Daniel MacIvor and an even better one in Leo Tolstoy. Let me explain.
Adapting his own stage play, MacIvor has taken as his focus that most enduring of subjects -- the unhappy family. Of course, no slouch on this topic himself, Tolstoy gave us Anna Karenina and its famous opening sentence, a line as widely quoted as it is misunderstood, the one ending with the assertion that every "unhappy family is unhappy after its own fashion." What he meant is this: Such families are unique in the expressions of their unhappiness, and not (as so dull scribes think) in the causes. The distinction is crucial, and MacIvor grasps it perfectly here. He zeroes right in on the singular expression, the "fashion" of his family's sorrow, and lets the causes bubble up almost incidentally, treating them as the commonplace stuff they are -- tragic, to be sure, but also trite.
Consequently, any simple narrative synopsis doesn't do the picture justice. The place is Nova Scotia's Sydney, and the clan consists of three Chekhovian sisters and their terminally ill mother. Years ago, Agnes (Molly Parker) skipped town for the brighter lights of Toronto, and has just returned to stand a death watch with her siblings -- the dutiful Theresa, a responsible nag (Rebecca Jenkins); and the sluggish Louise, an apathetic layabout (Stacy Smith). Naturally, tensions run high and frustration simmers among the fractious trio. Why? That brings us to those causes, a familiar panoply: wicked and abandoning father, loyal but misguided mom, lethal mix of alcohol and Catholicism, an unwanted pregnancy, a relinquished child, all adding up to the usual emotional stew of resentment and betrayal and anger.
Yes, that story has been told, that movie has been seen. But, thanks to MacIvor and director Wiebke von Carolsfeld, not precisely this way. Together, they put the emphasis squarely on the character's specific behavioural symptoms, on the particular manifestations of their various ills. That's what makes this individual family interesting.
For example, the once-wayward Agnes is more than an AA cliché trying to kick her addiction to booze and dope; here, she's also hooked on irony, an ingrained habit that makes the pill of a 12-step program especially hard to swallow. As for Theresa, responsibility is her drug of choice, and she abuses it mightily, afraid that even the slightest relaxation of duty will let the demons in. Watch for a lovely exchange that establishes the link between these outwardly mismatched sisters. Turns out their apparently profound differences are just opposite reactions to an identical set of provocations; beneath the skin of their shared family history, they're emotional twins.
There's another equally evocative moment, when the dying mother tempts Agnes with a shot glass of whisky. We're left to guess at her motives (is she cruel or merely misguided?), but not at the point of the sequence. In families, malice and ignorance are inseparable -- they cut with the same knife and inflict the same wounds. The enduring scars change us, slowly and sometimes for the better, and often invisibly to others. As Agnes dryly says to her mom: "I'm not as much like me as I used to be". Later, in the film's most memorable tableau, she confronts her villainous father, and the scene's power lies in its anticlimactic silence -- time has robbed the ogre of his teeth, her monster has melted into senility.
Not everything is that rich. The role of the third sister is comparatively underwritten, and the tidiness of the ending seems a sop to the very conventions that the movie had laboured so hard to avoid. However, these cavils aside, von Carolsfeld's debut (it won best "first Canadian feature" honours at the Toronto film festival last fall) is both impressive and assured. She allows her strong performers space to operate and a sensitive script room to breathe, all the while working her camera in claustrophobic arcs that neatly reinforce a domestic drama's inbred themes. In short, her technique matches the material, and gives us our cue: Ignore the broad outline of the plot and revel in the emotional filigree of the details. That's where our unhappy family sings its distinctive song, and Marion Bridge comes uniquely alive.